Friday, October 20, 2006

COM: Blogarithmic #160

Only three shows remaining for Lend Me A Tenor! -- tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Contact me for details, or scan the posts below.

OLH played a Thursday night game, and turned the tables on FEAST, wnning this time 22-20 to go up 3-3-1 in their inaugural season. Peter Navarra had a 40 yard burst for a TD.

Highland Park is at J.J. Pearce tonight, Tivy takes on Memorial, and ITM has an off week.

I took the Kerrville Daily Times to task yesterday on a front page story that messed up a bunch of bird stuff. Then today, a columnist, who i respect for his skills mis-IDed another bird -- Jackdaws for Pied Crows -- and complained about not using American vultures in a TV ad -- surely he must know that that's patently illegal, as would be using American Crows for the Pied jobs.

Here's my letter, which of course they won't print:

One would think that someone could have researched the proper names of the birds on your front page story today, especially since it's about birds and not just some throwaway piece. None of the identifications on the small pictures are totally correct, although you could get by with some. They are, properly, in order, Great-tailed Grackle, Mallard (though judging by its beak, it's likely a domestic bird turned loose -- and the last ducks you pictured on the front page in a story about migrants were likewise too fat to fly, which got quite a laugh among biologists i was leading on a migrant survey that day), Great Egret (the most egregious error, since Great White Heron is another species altogether, and which does not occur here), Northern Cardinal, and Turkey Vulture (Buzzards are European hawks, though Americans mistakenly call our vultures -- which are actually storks, not hawks at all -- buzzards).

Some additional notes: I was looking at the pictures online, alerted by someone else, and have just now gotten a copy of the print edition. I’m not certain it can be positively identified from the photo there, but the vulture pic looks to me like it might possibly be a Black Vulture instead of a Turkey Vulture – head color is a clue although it does not eliminate Turkey Vulture, but the bird also appears to have a tail length more typical of Black Vulture.

In your list of winter birds, a couple of comments. Pine Siskin is two words. Also, while all the birds listed there can be found here in the winter, one could get the impression from the sidebar title that these are birds arriving solely for the winter. That is not the case for several of these birds which are year round residents and breeders: Lesser Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, American Robin, Western Scrub-Jay, Carolina Wren, Bewick’s Wren, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Golden-fronted Woodpecker. Only 11 of the 22 species in your list are “wintering birds” by ornithological definitions. While some of these species do increase in numbers during the winter as birds come from up north, one, the Lesser Goldfinch, is actually much less common here in winter than other times of the year. Some like Western Scrub-Jay do not migrate and thus our numbers remain fairly static.

For those who are stumped by my pickiness with names – English names of birds are standardized by country of origin societies. In the U.S. this is the American Ornithologists’ Union. These names are duplicated in two state publications – The TOS Handbook of Texas Birds by Mark Lockwood and Brush Freeman (Texas A&M Press), and the Checklist of Texas Birds by Kelly Bryan, Tony Gallucci, Greg Lasley, Lockwood and David Riskind (Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. Press). All of these compendia of proper names are available online from those organizations – AOU, TOS & TPWD. Lockwood’s excellent book Birds of the Texas Hill Country also uses this nomenclature as does any modern field guide (although names occasionally change when DNA evidence shows unknown relationships among species). I highly recommend his book, and companion checklist, for anyone with a serious interest in Hill Country birds.

In the article proper, in the section on habitat (which doesn’t mention habitat), the statement that “American birders can pare down their checklist to the 5 billion or so found in North America” defies comprehension. Checklists are made up of listings of species. The US checklist – what people use in birding to list as many species as they can see – and which would be ludicrous to try at 5 billion – is actually about 800 species. The Texas checklist, largest in the US, just hit 630 confirmed species last month. The world total for species is about 10,000 – not anywhere near 30 billion. Those billions numbers, whose countenance is unknown to me but i assume to have been obtained from a reliable source (although the US having one-sixth the world total seems arrogant, especially considering the density of birds in the tropics – another clue is that we have less than one-tenth of the total species), is the estimated total for individual birds. If birders were counting those they’d never get out of the city limits. Can you imagine a field guide with pictures and descriptions, or even a checklist, of 5 billion birds?

Also, there seems to be a generalization in the article that birds migrating in Texas come from between the Rockies and the Mississippi. While not totally clear in the article such an implication would entail a bit of reverse logic. Most of the birds from that expanse that migrate do indeed migrate through Texas, but to imply that most migrant birds in Texas come from that expanse doesn’t wash, at least in part because that expanse is the least diverse and least densely populated major bird area in the lower 48.

In fact, many migrants from east of the Mississippi are funneled around the Gulf of Mexico into Texas – including the hundreds of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks that make the Corpus Christi hawkwatch such a tourist/birder draw. They only very rarely cross water, so virtually the entire population of that most common of North American hawks passes through Texas on its way south, and the greater percentage of that population breeds east of the Mississippi. The same is true of other eastern species.

In the spring migration period Texas is responsible for providing stopover grounds for a large percentage of eastern woodland breeding birds, and fall features huge numbers of Arctic, Alaskan and Tundra breeding shorebirds, gulls and terns, sparrows, finches and waterfowl. And if you consider the expanse of the Trans-Pecos west of Van Horn and the Big Bend to be part of the state of Texas, then it will come as no shock that, since it is west of the Rockies (which end at the Guadalupe Mountains), the birds migrating through there are largely species from the Rockies and further west.

We could also go into the post-breeding dispersal in which large numbers of Mexican birds move north in late summer as the northern breeders begin moving south, but . . .

P.s. in your wire service story on the back of section one about prairie-chickens – the correct spelling is Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken – the caption states they were released from an acclamation pen. Unless they were incarcerated legislators, i believe they were probably released from an acclimation pen.

Thanks for letting me vent. Newspapers rarely get science right.

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